This classic western has been re-released in a digital format by the BFI. You can read about it in the May edition of Sight and Sound under ‘The Psychological Western’ and ‘Westward the Women’. Both suggest why this film is now a cult classic, but there are other good reasons as well.
The director Nicholas Ray is a celebrated ‘auteur’ from the last stages of classic Hollywood, [i.e. the studio system]. His films are full of interest and he has a particular facility with colour: the best example being Rebel Without a Cause (1955). The screenplay is by Philip Jordan, whose other work includes Anthony Mann’s fine western The Man From Laramie (1955). The cinematography is by Harry Stradling who won two Academy Awards and received another 12 nominations. And the music is by Victor Young, who also won an Oscar and received another eleven nominations. Charlton Heston always maintained the nominations were what really counted as they were from one’s own peers in the Academy.
The film also has a stellar cast. Joan Crawford, in one of her outstanding roles, is saloon owner Vienna. She is the central character in the film despite being listed third in some publicity. Her support in the film is Sterling Hayden as drifting Johnny ‘Guitar’ Logan. Hayden’s laconic persona, with ample gravitas, led to Bernardo Bertolucci casting him in his epic 1900 (Novecento, 1976). The opposition is led by Mercedes McCambridge as Emma Small; she almost liberally spits fire in the film. And the ever dependable Ward Bond is her sidekick John McIvers.
The film takes one of the central themes of the western genre – revenge – and treats it in an entirely unconventional manner. The film crosses over with the small-town melodrama, a genre that Ray used in his Bigger than Life (1956). This is a film that especially reflects on the social and film industry ‘witch-hunts’ of the period. The HUAC ‘witch-hunt’ is featured in two recent releases, Trumbo (2015) and Hail, Caesar (2016). Even if you are not a fan of westerns I would reckon this is a 110 minutes of completely engaging drama. The film was produced in the early days of modern widescreen formats and is in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio and was filmed in Trucolor for Republic Pictures.